Lot 411
  • 411

VIRGINIE DEMONT-BRETON | Femme de pêcheur venant de baigner ses enfants

100,000 - 150,000 USD
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  • Virginie Demont-Breton
  • Femme de pêcheur venant de baigner ses enfants 
  • signed Virginie Demont-Breton and dated 1881 (lower right) 
  • oil on canvas 
  • 80 by 49 3/4 in.
  • 203.2 by 126.4 cm


Goupil & Cie, Paris, no. 15208 (acquired directly from the artist, March 1881)
Sale: Hôtel Drouot, Paris, May 25-27, 1887, lot 48 (with incorrect dimensions)
Mr. J.H. Van Eeghen, Esq., Amsterdam (acquired at the above sale and sold, Christie's, London, April 30, 1909, lot 107) 
Royal Art Ltd., New Orleans (by 1984)
Private Collection (acquired from the above and sold, Sotheby's, New York, November 2, 2001, lot 106, illustrated)
Acquired at the above sale


Paris, Salon des Artistes Français, 1881, no. 675 
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum (on temporary loan in 1896, 1902-3, possibly continuous)


Ludovic Baschet, ed., L'Exposition de Beaux-Arts (Salon de 1881), Paris, 1881, p. 287, illustrated p. 74 
George Lafenestre, Le livre d'or du salon, Paris, 1881, p. 17, illustrated 
"Le Salon de 1881," Gazette des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1881, vol. 24, p. 60
Winslow Homer: All the Cullercoats Pictures, exh. cat., The Northern Centre for Contemporary Art, Sunderland, 1988, p. 68, illustrated p. 69 
Annette Bourrut Lacouture, "Virginie Demont-Breton (1859-1935), La Famille, La Mer et les Mythes fin de siècle," Bononia. Bulletin de l'Association des Amis des Musées de Boulogne-sur-Mer, 1991-92, nos. 19-20, p. 36-37, illustrated p. 37 
Tamar Garb, Sisters of the Brush: Women's Artistic Culture in Late Nineteenth-Century Paris, New Haven, 1994, p. 14 
Nelson Cazeils and Fanny Fennec, Il y a un siècle-- les femmes et la mer, Rennes, 2003, p. 109, illustrated 
"Femmes et images," CLIO, Histoire, Femmes, et Societés, Toulouse, 2004, issue 19, p. 93


This work is in original, unlined condition. It was recently given a light surface cleaning and is well stretched on its stretcher. There are slight horizontal stretcher bar marks at one third intervals, and the heavily painted areas in the upper third and lower third of the composition shows faint areas of fine craquelure. The paint layer is stable and very well-preserved. Under UV, there are virtually no retouchings of note, aside from a few small retouches to the female figure's forward leg and a one inch diameter restoration just to the right of the rock under the figure's forward foot.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

Winning the artist her first medal at the Salon of 1881, Femme de pêcheur venant de baigner ses enfants is Virginie Demont-Breton’s earliest masterpiece, propelling her distinguished career as a painter and as an intrepid, pioneering advocate for women artists.Demont-Breton enjoyed an artistic upbringing and cultivated her talent from an early age. Her father, painter Jules Breton, introduced her to the famed animalier Rosa Bonheur, who became a mentor, role model, and artistic ally. She received an ‘Honorable Mention’ when she exhibited at the Salon for the first time in 1880, won medals for her 1881 submission, the present work, and La Plage (1883, location unknown), and a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle of 1889. In 1894, Demont-Breton was the second woman in France to be awarded the Légion d’honneur, the first being Bonheur.   

Just as her father immortalized the agrarian traditions of field workers in rural Courrières, Demont-Breton was fascinated by the sea and found inspiration in the everyday lives of fishermen and their families. Beginning in 1880, she regularly travelled to the seaside hamlet of Wissant, near Calais, where the local villagers and constantly unfolding dramas of maritime life provided her with endless subject matter. Often painting en plein air while standing knee-deep in the surf, the sea and its distant horizon became her stage of choice. Images of children playing, fishermen attending to their boats, ships wrecked in the crashing waves and merchants with their catch are charged with great emotional depth, nearing Symbolist motifs. In paintings such as L’homme est en mer (1889, location unknown and a composition directly adopted by Vincent van Gogh for a painting of the same name, painted while he underwent treatment at an asylum in Saint-Rémy) and Les tourmentés (1906, Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Arras) women and children are seen gripped by the uncertain return of their husbands and fathers. Her striking and grim composition, Stella Maris (1894, location unknown), showing a wrecked ship’s mast with two bodies entangled on it, is an homage to the great storm of November 1893, which took the lives of ten fisherman, including the fourteen-year-old Jacques Pourre who had previously modeled for the artist. 

Conceived in an oil sketch in 1880, Femme de pêcheur venant de baigner ses enfants presents a heroic view of a fisherman’s wife, emerging from the sea after bathing her children. This monumental composition alludes to Botticelli's Birth of Venus, which had been reimagined by William Bouguereau and exhibited at the Salon of 1879, winning him the Grand Prix de Rome and purchased by the state (now in the Musée d'Orasy, Paris). Fresh in Demont-Breton's imagination, it is not difficult to imagine the Femme de pêcheur venant de baigner ses enfants is an adaptation of the subject from her own perspective. While Bouguereau's goddess of love, sexuality and fertility is bathed in lustful eroticism as she poses on her seashell in striking contrapposto, Demont-Breton’s subject is decidedly earth-bound. While the compositional parallels are evident, arrival of the fisherman’s wife is not announced by a parade of centaurs, nymphs and putti. Assuming a similar curvature of pose, she carries the heavy weight of two naked children, her arms strong and supportive. Her gaze is fixed to the ground, careful as she steps forward. In contrast to the featherlight top toe of Bouguereau's Venus,  the anatomy of her feet is exaggerated, emphasizing their steady weight atop the wet rocks — a contrast which is viscerally felt by the viewer.

Although she spent much of her life in a rural community outside of Paris, Demont-Breton was not a withdrawn artist working in isolation. Instead, she was an outspoken advocate for the rights of female artists at a time when the establishment was hostile towards them, engaging in political discourse and activism. She was the president of the Union des Femmes Peintres et Sculpteurs from, and 1895-1901. She fought for the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris to open to women, and won in 1897, granting women the right to study in the Academic setting and granting access to artistic tools, such as life models, previously unavailable.

We would like to thank Annette Bourrut Lacouture for confirming the authenticity of this lot.